High-concept, can't-stand-still composer (and former City Paper contributor) Rjyan Kidwell's latest is an electronic album put together using the tools of the immediate past. Shamaneater's instrumentals are created by way of throwback synthesizers and drum machines, and the ambitious project comes with a text that adopts the voice of the late '90s amateur video game guide known as the "GameFAQ." The accompanying 27-page PDF, made to look as though it was put together by a user named "Pain-Based Lifeform," operates as a guidebook for a (made-up) Playstation 2 product also called Shamaneater. This FAQ helps players unlock all of the nooks and crannies of this apparently addictive video game, which it turns out, is about being addicted and, eventually, absorbed by a video game. Got all that?
And man, Kidwell really captures the language of turn-of-the-millennium web-dwellers here. The dorkus malorkus who spent the time penning this guide is helpful yet stern, interested in imparting knowledge but also lording it over your n00b-ish ass: "If you haven't read the section you're stuck on and you think you are special and you e-mail me before you check it, you are not special and you can read that part yourself," Pain-Based Lifeform warns. That said, the GameFAQ isn't vital to "getting" Shamaneater because Kidwell's compositions alone are world-building.
Opener "Ritual" is digital nu-metal, which is precisely the sonic territory a computer music-maker in 2001 would've aimed for when appealing to the teen demographic that would've purchased Shamaneater if it existed IRL. Meaty Korn bass lines and breakdowns approximated on now-seen-as-chintzy electronics capture the specific charm of video game music, often full of ambitious sonic ideas never entirely seen through, thanks to the limits of the technology of the time. As Shamaneater pulses along, though, Kidwell's production chops are on full display and "Ritual" sounds cheekily rudimentary by the time you've gotten to say, the 13-minute Drive soundtrack-like "Ares." It adds a sense of "play" to the record itself: You're on a kind of sonic journey and each song denser and more ambitious than the previous one takes you further into this carefully constructed 64-bit milieu.
On "Path" and "Micro, you'll hear fidgeting electro-crunk, while hints of Detroit techno heroes Drexciya appear on "Sucking" and "Spiral." The regal noise of "Vapor Ops" sounds like a lost anthem for the year cyberpunk broke. Final track "Scrub" is an end-credit screen march constructed as if it could go on somberly blooping forever. Instead, the determined slow burner abruptly ends, mid-synth skitter, as if the gamer reached over and suddenly punched that power button after basking in just-beat-the-thing victory for a few minutes. Most nostalgia trips rarely capture the intricacies of a moment in the past like Kidwell does here. He has crafted a playful, meta-on-top-of-meta project that leaves it up to the listener to choose just how lost in this thing they're willing to get.